'The Internet Has Made Us Dumber,' and Other Lessons Government Officials Learned in 2020

Governors, mayors, state lawmakers and city and county officials reflected on Zoom fails, prioritizing realistic change and the power of human connection, among other things.

Governors, mayors, state lawmakers and city and county officials reflected on Zoom fails, prioritizing realistic change and the power of human connection, among other things. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

State and local officials weigh in on what they're taking from—and leaving behind in—the dumpster fire that was last year.

The first month of a new year is typically a time of reflection and recalibration—a chance to consider what went well in the past 12 months and what could go better in the next. That tradition seems particularly poignant this January, wrapping up a historic—and, broadly, miserable—year while heading into an already-tumultuous new one. I wanted to commemorate it by doing a quick check-in with state and local government leaders across the country. I boiled it down to two simple questions: What did you learn from 2020? And what do you hope to do differently in 2021?

Beyond that, I set no rules or guidelines. Respondents were free to talk about whatever they wanted: personal or professional, serious or funny, short or long. All I asked was that they be candid and honest.

Here’s what they said.

Pamela Antil, city manager, Encinitas, California

“As a hobby, I convert antique stick pins and brooches into modern charms and pendants to repurpose old jewelry so its history continues. During Covid, I learned that A.) There is a whole creative community who enjoys antique jewelry as a hobby and I don’t know if I would have found them if not for the Covid lockdown; B.) I’m more entrepreneurial than I thought and now have a little cottage business on Instagram; and people buy A LOT of jewelry online when they have exhausted their streaming video series list! 

“I have learned to be more present with my family and pets during Covid and I hope to remain present when the world returns to ‘normal.’ I didn’t realize how distracted I was with work at home until I had more time to reflect on family togetherness during Covid.”

Allison Hiltz, city council member, Aurora, Colorado

“2020 was a big year. On a personal level, it’s the year I became a mom and saw firsthand how poorly we support parents and caregivers in this country. I also broadened my understanding of the subtle ways in which systemic racism is baked into the data we collect and use to inform decisions and policies, particularly in policing.

“Covid-19 laid bare many of the inequities that are woven into our social fabric, but much of the year was spent reacting to crises. This year, I hope to be more proactive in identifying ways to mitigate and eliminate inequities where I can and to continue peeling back the layers of the systemic racism that is embedded in our policies and programs.”

Dave Mahoney, sheriff, Dane County, Wisconsin

“The year 2020 is like none other I experienced in 41 years of law enforcement service, including the past 14 years as sheriff. 2020 came in with a roar, thrusting a pandemic of coronavirus upon our nation and upending how law enforcement interacts with the communities they serve. We were introduced to video conferencing which, for now, put an end to in-person meetings, court hearings and visits with family members who did not live in the same household, all in the name of social distancing—forcing families to watch their loved ones and at times co-workers infected by the virus to die in isolation and alone.

“There were some positive takeaways. We no longer had to travel great distances for meetings, we got the opportunity to see the insides of offices and homes of participants (which at times provided great humor when a participant forgot they had the video on and took their iPad with them to carry out personal and private needs). Courts, which in the past discounted video conferencing, now discovered that court hearings and the transport of incarcerated subjects could actually uphold their rights while increasing efficiency of the court process. 

“There were many negatives as well. The lack of human interaction and engagement distanced me from the people I represent...and as such I feel trust was diminished. It has been like eating Styrofoam—you go through the motions but really don’t get anything healthy out of it. (I don’t actually eat Styrofoam.)

“To be honest, if the first eight days of 2021 are any example for what is ahead in the next 357 days, I better eat my Wheaties, charge up the iPad, straighten the pictures on the walls of my office, keep the dog out of my home office and look for the vaccine, because it’s looking like a heck of a year ahead.”

Roy Cooper, governor, North Carolina

“In 2020, I learned just how resilient the people of North Carolina are. When we come together there is nothing we can’t achieve.

“In 2021, we must learn how to work around our differences, recognize that the words we choose to use can be powerful and that we must join together to build a healthier and more prosperous state for all North Carolinians.”

Jon Hardister, state representative, North Carolina

“There are many lessons from 2020. For starters, we all need to work together if we want to succeed at overcoming challenges such as Covid-19. We cannot solve major problems if we are divided. We also learned that we need to have better plans in place in the event that there is another public health crisis. In addition, we have been reminded how much we rely on technology to communicate. The advancements of modern communication methods has been a major benefit to us in the new world of social distancing. 

“Here is another lesson of 2020. People need to be careful when they are on a video chat, such as Zoom. We have seen people do interesting things when they did not know they were being recorded. People need to be careful or else they may end up being famous for all the wrong reasons. All one needs to do is search ‘Zoom fails’ on YouTube to see what the perils are. 

“While I've always thought it was important to reach across the political aisle to get things done, I am going to make even more of an effort to do that this year. We clearly need more unity in our country, and I plan to do all I can to help unify people in North Carolina. 

Another observation. There have always been haters on social media, such as Twitter, and the haters are going to hate. I didn't let them get to me in 2020, and I won't let them get to me in 2021. People on all sides of the political spectrum should heed Taylor Swift's advice: The haters are going to hate. Shake it off.”

Jon Erpenbach, state senator, Wisconsin

“What really sticks out for me in 2020 is that becoming sick is now political, and that people generally are not willing to verify anything out there on their own anymore; at least not right now. The internet has made us dumber. 2020 also cemented in my mind that, at least politically, one side is only concerned about 50.01% of our country. If they get 50.01%, they feel they have a mandate to do and say whatever it is they want.

“In 2021, I want to continue to work to try and better understand why people think the way they think, whether I agree or disagree with what they think. I’m a Democrat—a very passionate Democrat—but I represent everybody in my state senate district. We have, collectively, as Wisconsinites and as a country, so much more in common than we don’t. I’ve yet to meet anybody who really doesn’t want to have a clean environment, or who doesn’t want to make sure they’re leaving the world a better place for their kids or grandkids. I haven't met anybody who really, truly doesn't think that we really are all in this together. We need to  build on what we have in common and what we can achieve, instead of pointing fingers and saying ‘You suck.’”

Darrell Roberts, battalion chief, Chula Vista Fire Department, California

“In 2020, I learned that we are limited in what we can control in this life. As a 25-year firefighter, I have always prepared for the worst-case scenario, from controlling wildfires to the pandemic. In our line of business we see the absolute worst in humanity, in nature, and in life. We will never be able to make sense of why things happen. I have always placed control measures in place to minimize damage and ensure success. After this year, I’ll continue with the same philosophy, but I’ll be mindful that forces bigger than I are at work. 2020 has humbled me to the core.

“In 2021, I am making a conscientious effort to enjoy the most important gift of all, life. I will try and make the best of my time with my wife and family. I will take my old dog for more walks, enjoy cold beers, sips of whiskey, find peace in my heart, and smile more.”

Joy Marsh Stephens, director, Division of Race and Equity, Minneapolis

“James Baldwin once said, ‘People can cry much easier than they can change.’ I had that quote on the wall of my office long before 2020, but saw the truth of the statement on full display more last year than ever before. What I learned in the process is to draw razor-sharp boundaries as a queer Black woman leading anti-racism work in a moderate-sized urban area. 

“Minneapolis has a reputation for being progressive while also facing some of the worst social and economic outcomes in the nation for historically Black people. In 2021, my sanity as well as my professional success, and that of my team, calls for maintaining those boundaries. It means regularly assessing what our work is and what is not our work to do. We must be all the more certain about where people only want to cry vs. where they are actually willing to change so we can direct our limited energy in those places where transformation is truly possible.”

Rick Kriseman, mayor, St. Petersburg, Florida

“2020 was another reminder of the importance of cities in America. It’s a lesson we’ve learned far too often lately as our national government and so many state governments have been missing in action, miscommunicating, or misleading when it comes to issues related to science (climate change, for example) or public health (global pandemic). Cities, mayors, are needing to elevate, to prepare for challenges once thought too big to tackle. This is just one of many lessons I learned or relearned this year, but I think it’s one that resonates with local elected officials throughout America.

“Social unrest related to race relations, inequities and police brutality and reform also dominated much of 2020, and here in St. Pete we learned that the actions we took over the past seven years paid dividends. In 2014 we reestablished community-oriented policing. Since then, we’ve seen crime drop, tips increase, and we’ve created a strong working relationship between our residents and our officers. I think we kept the peace in St. Pete, a city with a history of racial tension, because of this. The work continues.

“2021 is my last full year as mayor, and I hope to continue to move us forward, past Covid-19, and back to normal—even if it’s a new normal. I suspect this year will be different in that our city can return to having a positive working relationship with a new administration in Washington.”

Nancy Navarro, councilmember, Montgomery County, Maryland

In 2019 I presided over the Montgomery County Council, ushering in a new era of county leadership. My focus was on change management and achieving three top policy priorities: passing racial equity and social justice legislation; creating, adopting and funding an early care and education action plan, and developing and implementing an economic development framework for the county. I achieved all this before wrapping up my presidency, and I was eager to continue working on these and many other important issues facing our county.

“Then 2020 happened.

“On March 13th, it all became clear and I immediately realized that all that change management would become handy. Teleworking, digital instruction, virtual council proceedings, and numerous special appropriations—once perceived as an impossible task—are now the norm.

“Since my early days in public office I have been guided by the following:

1) Our work must always be authentically collaborative.
2) Self-centered, ego-driven policy making does not advance positive structural change.
3) Equity is not just a trendy term, it is essential to the survival of our democracy.

“2020 and so far 2021 have confirmed these principles. My 2021 resolution is to be mindful and hold myself accountable to them.”

Stella Carr, sustainability director, Lexington, Massachusetts

As a sustainability and local government professional, resiliency is a term I associated with the ability for a community to recover quickly from challenges—namely environmental disasters, which have been heightened due to climate change.

“In 2020, I learned that we must acknowledge that resiliency does not only regard the physical realms of our communities, or even the bureaucratic systems that uphold them. Resiliency, in our professional and personal lives, must also include the human spirit at a fundamental level. Local governments and their citizens are more adaptable than one might realize. The fact that our communities are still standing (though conditions may vary) and leaders continue working in order to guide their communities through back-to-back struggles is a testament to that resiliency. 

“In 2021 I hope to continue nurturing my own resiliency—and that of those around me—recognizing that not all communities and spirits recover at the same pace, but we can and we must recover. Let’s keep charging forward, together, through whatever challenges or opportunities lie ahead.”

Dotti Owens, coroner, Ada County, Idaho

2020 was a year of valuable lessons within the coroner/medical examiner field. Many of us learned that we are never really as ready for pandemic/mass fatality as we think we are. We spend hours planning, organizing and training for these events only to discover that the very infrastructure of our industry is underdeveloped and has substantial needs. During the year, we have been forced to fight and educate about our roles, responsibilities and needs—not only to other elected officials within our counties, but on state and federal levels as well. We have spent the year fighting for funding priority for test kits, PPE, body storage and, now, vaccination. Being a coroner is not an easy job, but it is rewarding and deserves to be done at the very best of our abilities.

“2021 will be a year of education, policy development and legislation. Coroners and medical examiners need to be operating within the standards outlined within our accreditation boards.  It is imperative that our counties and leaders understand what our role includes, the importance of what we do and the prevention efforts that our data develops.”

Dennis Lawson, president, Washington State Council of Fire Fighters

“People are unique in their own ways, special for so many different reasons and important to others. Recognizing that as humans it should be known and accepted that we all may have varying thoughts and opinions on a variety of issues, and having differences does not make a person right or wrong, good or bad, or your foe when you don’t agree. There needs to be a way to achieve tolerance and understanding without others thinking that a person is weak for doing so.

“Communication seems to be a key part of so many different issues. Talking louder does not make you right. If you’re willing to talk, you should be willing to listen, and if it feels good you should probably not say it.

“Life is fragile—with an unknown end date—we should celebrate each day and those around us. 

“For 2021 I would like to return to more personal interaction with others. Although much has been learned about the ability to communicate ‘virtually,’  there is something to be achieved by personal interaction. Meeting in person does not allow for a person to ‘click’ the camera off, to take care of other projects or elect to go without pants during a meeting. Working directly with others, in person, seems to enhance a project, and create an atmosphere of inclusion, which I believe leads to a better outcome.”

Felicita Monteblanco, board member, Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District, Oregon

“What stands out to me in 2020 was just how much the patrons love, appreciate and genuinely need our services. Access to trails, parks, sport courts, recreation and swim centers are essential for our community to thrive. As one example, in 2020 our trail counts continuously reported record numbers of patrons walking, running and biking. We even received a sweet note from a well-intentioned patron encouraging us to immediately go after a bond as the district has never been more popular. Our patrons have expressed appreciation for our staff as well, who did more with less and have consistently been creative and stayed nimble despite a difficult time for our sector. 

“2020 included a pandemic, cities and towns across the US demanding racial justice, and historic wildfires on the west coast. As a result, it became abundantly clear just how critical it is to have a board of directors lead with clear values. We lead with a commitment to racial equity, sustainability and responsiveness. This set the tone for staff who had limited resources due to budget cuts and staff furloughs. Our amazing staff pivoted quickly responding to the community’s need for everything from dialogue to indoor exercise options and put creative, accessible programming in place. We take these lessons into the future to the benefit of our patrons.

“In 2021, I want to do more, rather than different. It should not take a pandemic for our patrons to be aware of the diverse amenities offered by the park district and just how critical we are to this region. We learned so much in 2020 and take those lessons with us into the future to be a responsive organization.”

Lisa Wells, executive director, Pioneer Library System, Oklahoma

“In 2020, Pioneer Library System realized how vital it is to be an engaged and adaptable partner so that immediate action can be taken in times of crisis. When we closed our doors temporarily in March due to the pandemic, we did not miss a day of serving our communities because of our robust community partnerships, innovative library services, and proactive staff.

“By already being embedded in our communities, staff were able to quickly assess needs and implement new, innovative services to prioritize safety and access. Our strong relationships with business partners allowed staff to roll out customized services based on those customer needs, such as curbside pick-up, remote computer reservations, and virtual events for all ages.

“2020 also revealed how many students and families lacked access to library materials and services, both in urban and rural areas. We responded by working closely with school districts in our three-county service area to create seamless access to the library’s digital collections for students, parents, and teachers, expanding school collections by thousands of titles in some cases. With schools closing, we recognized many young people were growing increasingly disconnected, feeling a loss of control during the pandemic and protest movements. We engaged with civic partners to initiate and foster conversations among youth to tackle crucial topics, combat isolation, and encourage activism in safe and inclusive environments.

“The unique challenges of 2020 helped shine the spotlight on how partnering with your public library positively impacts the community. This year prepared us to think differently about the way we interact with our customers, business partners, and staff, and in 2021 we are excited to continue strengthening these connections.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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